Director Mike Mitchell: Trolls are like ‘gummy bears wrapped in velvet’

From the creators of Shrek comes Trolls, a smart, funny and irreverent comedy about the search for happiness and just how far some will go to get it. The film transports audiences to a colorful, wondrous world populated by the overly optimistic Trolls, who have a constant dance in their step and a song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have Trolls in their stomachs.

After the Bergens invade Troll Village, Poppy (Anna Kendrick), the happiest Troll ever born, and the overly-cautious, curmudgeonly Branch (Justin Timberlake) set off on a journey to rescue her friends. Their mission is full of adventure and mishaps, as this mismatched duo try to tolerate each other long enough to get the job done. The cast is rounded out Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Russell Brand, Zooey Deschanel, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, James Corden, Kunal Nayyar, Ron Funches, Icona Pop, Quvenzhané Wallis, with John Cleese and Gwen Stefani.

It’s not uncommon that I’ve interviewed an actor and heard about how a great script fell into his or her lap. This was a rare time that an interview fell into my lap. I was at the Four Seasons for another press junket and happened to be in the elevator with a publicist friend who was accompanying Mike Mitchell, the director of Trolls. When I mentioned that I hadn’t been asked to cover Trolls, Mitchell invited me to the junket. At the junket, here’s what Mitchell had to say about his animated musical.

As DreamWorks had done with Shrek, Mitchell and Walt Dohrn decided to adapt the Trolls mythology to create a new universe and set of characters. They did embrace one aspect of previous Trolls history however.

“We were fascinated by how these creatures were originally scary-ugly and evolved over time into being cute-ugly. In the 1970s they became a symbol for happiness.”

Films usually take years to make and animated films usually take much longer to make on average than a live action film. Mitchell insists that the long production process wasn’t difficult.

“Working with such talented writers and having such a great producer and an amazing co-director and an amazing [story] board artist – DreamWorks collected the best group of technicians I’ve ever worked with – all under one roof. Then you met most of our cast. Every one of them is a great actor, but they’re also really funny. They all have a great sense of humor. It’s always helpful in these films. And each one of them can sing. Zooey Deschanel is a great singer, along with James Corden. Did you know that Justin Timberlake knows how to sing? There was nothing hard about it. [At the end of the shoot] it was like the end of camp and everyone was hugging each other.”

Speaking of hugs, the Trolls have a rule that they must hug every hour. It’s this message of love and friendship that the filmmakers felt was necessary to combat the bad news we are bombarded with daily.

“The reason we did this film wasn’t just for kids. Even for myself, in the media, everything is so dark. So much stuff on the Internet is so judgmental. Let’s not even talk about how silly this election is – it’s so disturbing and weird. We just wanted to make something that makes people feel happy – like they went to a party after seeing this movie. We’ve been showing it around and the reaction is cool. We’d love to make five movies but we want to make sure they’re saying something and there’s some emotion involved.”

I mentioned earlier that animated films take much longer to produce than live action films. Mitchell explained why.

“I’ve worked on live action films and animated films and here’s the big difference: In live action films, you work on the script until it’s as tight as you can get it. Then you’re casting. Then you’re shooting. Then you edit the film and add sound effects and music and the mix and you’re done. In animation, you’re doing all of that at the same time. I compare [making an animated film] to workshopping a play. We’re constantly improving things. We draw sketches and edit them together. We use music and sound effects from other movies and put it all together.

There’s a theater at DreamWorks and we fill the theater with basically everyone who’s working on the film and we watch it. Then we take it down and remake it. We remake the film ten times. Actually, we ended up with 13 different versions. As we’re moving along, it’s slowly getting more and more animated, but we’re also exhausting our writers. The first version [of the script] was fantastic, but we keep making it better and better. I think that’s why animated films are so much fun [to watch]. They take the time to workshop the story. I think that some films, like the Marvel films, are starting to make films that same way. They almost make the whole film before they shoot it.”

Trolls not only conveys a message of happiness and positivity, but the filmmakers hope the film can send a message about positive body image for children. For years, cartoon princesses were created like Barbie dolls with measurements that few, if any, girls could possibly hope to have. In the film, the Trolls are round – and this wasn’t an accident.

“We’ve been showing this film around and people have noticed it. And it’s great that they’ve noticed it. Poppy is a strong character without itty bitty hooves for feet and a cinched waist and great hair. Poppy is unlike any princess you’ve seen before. In addition to her leadership skills, she has a quirky edge, which Anna Kendrick really helped bring to life. It’s really neat that we put a lot of work into the look of the film. This is nerd talk, but the technology has gotten so sophisticated that you can make things look super real. We went the other way so that the characters are gummy bears wrapped in velvet.”

Trolls is now playing in theaters.

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